Pennsylvania's wines have improved by leaps and bounds in the last decade, particularly its dry reds. For decades, the state has made better white wines than red, with chardonnay standing out as Pennsylvania's best prospect. Until recently, dry red wines typically tasted thin, tart, and vegetal, all classic hallmarks of underripe grapes. But local winemakers are getting the hang of making reds these days and are getting good results with one French grape in particular: cabernet franc.
"With more wineries exploring more of Pennsylvania's terrain, we've gotten better at figuring out what grows best where," says Sarah Troxell, winemaker at Galen Glen Winery. "When Pennsylvania was a younger wine region, pioneering winemakers knew that the world wanted grapes like cabernet sauvignon, so that's what was planted. Over time, though, we've since learned that cooler-climate grapes like cabernet franc are better suited to our state's growing conditions."
Cabernet franc's wines are not as intense as those made with its more famous relation, cabernet sauvignon, so as noble grapes go, it is sadly misunderstood. Thicker-skinned cabernet sauvignon needs dry heat to ripen fully, so it thrives in more arid regions, like California; cabernet franc's thinner skins are better suited to cooler, more humid climates like Pennsylvania's. As a result, cabernet franc's wines combine the blackberry and green-herb aromatics of its relatives from Bordeaux, like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with the lighter weight and higher acidity of cooler-climate wines from other grapes, like Italy's Tuscan reds.
Many Pennsylvania regions make good cabernet franc, but the stylistic choices of their winemakers vary widely. Some model their wines after the leaner and drier flavor profile of traditional European wines; others aim for a more modern style with riper fruit and richer mouthfeel. Because all Pennsylvania wineries can ship their wines directly to state residents, you needn't visit their tasting rooms to buy them. Just visit their websites to place an order to support these local heroes.
If Pennsylvania has a red-wine whisperer, it is Penns Woods founder and winemaker Gino Razzi, whose exceptional results over the last 15 years have raised the bar for the state's red-wine makers. Most Pennsylvania cabernet francs are lighter, leaner, and greener in their aromatic profile, but Razzi is able to consistently coax this variety into riper and more chocolatey expressions that are surprisingly rich in texture. His cabernet sauvignons and blends may be pricey, but they're remarkably good.
2014 cabernet franc reserve, $36
Stylistically resembles: Napa Valley cabernet franc
Tolino Vineyards, Bangor, Pa. / Northampton County
This Lehigh Valley vintner takes a more Italian-inspired approach to winemaking, even when using French grapes like cabernet franc. The result is a drier style that is more savory than overtly fruity, a wine designed more to serve as a flattering partner for food than to seduce on first sip. This delightful example offers sour cherry fruit flavors seasoned with aromas of dried green herbs. Its bright acidity and firm tannins suggest it may also acquire more aromatic complexity after a year or two of cellaring.
2014 cabernet franc, $24.99
Stylistically resembles: Italian sangiovese-cabernet blends
Galen Glen Winery, Andreas, Pa. / Schuylkill County
Also in the Lehigh Valley, Galen Glen has gotten more attention for its unoaked white wines, but it has a remarkably strong cabernet franc in its affordable "Stone Cellar" series. This midweight red has the sappy freshness of wild berries balanced by the dry attack and tangy finish that characterize some of France's most enjoyable cabernet franc wines from the Loire Valley region. With lower levels of mouth-gripping tannins, this wine is one to enjoy young, while its pleasant scents of hibiscus and black raspberries are at their peak.
2015 Stone Cellar cabernet franc, $16.99
Stylistically resembles: French anjou (Loire Valley cabernet franc)